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Remembering the 110 people who died homeless in Hillsborough last year

The youngest was 19 years old, the eldest was 78.
 
People gather at The Portico during a memorial Monday for 110 people who died while experiencing homelessness in Tampa this past year.
People gather at The Portico during a memorial Monday for 110 people who died while experiencing homelessness in Tampa this past year. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 6|Updated Feb. 6

TAMPA — Their names hung in the damp, early evening air, each read aloud as a prayer and a plea.

Joe Morgan, 71. Katherine Coleman, 49. William Perez, 62.

The names of 110 people — known to have died while homeless in Hillsborough County last year, the most in three years and a grim epilogue to a year and region marked by an unrelenting surge in the cost of living.

On Monday, dozens gathered in downtown Tampa for a vigil seeking to offer dignity for those whose lives often ended with little of it.

Shawn Reilly, 30. Kevin Johnson, 58. Ryan Sipperley, 25.

Organizers had prepared pamphlets, posters and a mural listing 109 deaths, only to learn on the day of the vigil that the latest data put the death toll at 110.
Organizers had prepared pamphlets, posters and a mural listing 109 deaths, only to learn on the day of the vigil that the latest data put the death toll at 110. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

They died in the dawn and the dark and under the midday sun. The first death came on the first day of the year, and they continued through the last days of December. Every month saw fatalities, but none was as deadly as August, when 22 people died in the county in about four weeks.

Over the thrum of nearby traffic, they were remembered at this annual event organized by The Portico, the downtown campus of Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

Walter Harp, 68. Julia Johnson, 51. Richard Booth, 33.

The vast majority of those who died — more than 80% — were men, according to the county Medical Examiner’s Office. The youngest was 19. The eldest, 78. The average age was 50.

They were a fraction of the thousands of homeless people across the country who died in 2023, when homelessness surged nationwide to the highest level on record, according to federal data.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor did not attend the vigil. Neither did any member of the Tampa City Council or the Hillsborough County Commission.

Michael Hall, 48. Mandy Costley, 44. Rocky Reynolds, 62.

As the sunset streaked the sky pink and the darkness drew closer, Justin LaRosa hoped that each name would be a call for compassion and a reminder of the region’s ongoing struggle to help those who have lost everything, those who lead zigzagging paths through courts and jails, treatment centers and sidewalks. And a commitment to act.

“There are other things for us to do besides remember,” he told the crowd. A social worker and an ordained minister, LaRosa is the director of The Portico.

He and other organizers had prepared pamphlets and posters listing 109 deaths, only to learn on the day of the event that they had missed one.

Henry Shaw, 64.

Sisters Whitney Smith, left, Meredith Smith and Claire Smith sing near a “Homeless Jesus” statue at The Portico Cafe on Monday during a memorial for 110 people who died while homeless in Tampa this past year.
Sisters Whitney Smith, left, Meredith Smith and Claire Smith sing near a “Homeless Jesus” statue at The Portico Cafe on Monday during a memorial for 110 people who died while homeless in Tampa this past year. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Tucked behind the building, a couple huddled in the fading light. They’d glimpsed the vigil underway but couldn’t bear to linger.

“It makes me cry,” said Caitlyn Soucy, 48.

They used to have a home in New Hampshire, said Steve Soucy, 35. They used to have a car and two good jobs. Monday night they had little but thin jackets shielding them from the February wind.

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He had worked as a roofer, she in restaurants. Then the pandemic arrived. Bills piled up. First they moved into their car. Then, onto the streets. Bad credit complicated their efforts to claw back stability.

“We’ve just been stuck ever since,” said Steve.

“Yes,” said Caitlyn. “Stuck.”

Soon after, they disappeared into the night, searching for a place to sleep.

The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative is looking for volunteers to help with their annual Point In Time count, which provides a snapshot of the county’s homeless population during a single, 24-hour period. This year’s count is taking place on Feb. 22. To learn more visit www.thhi.org/2024pit.